The Legislature passed the biggest change to the state’s education system in more than 10 years, sending to Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday a bill tying teacher salaries to test scores and ending multi-year contracts.
The House of Representatives passed the bill on a 80-39 straight party-line vote, with Republicans in favor, after more than three hours of debate. Scott said afterward that he will sign it, the first bill that will be approved by the new governor.
The bill (SB 736) was a top priority for Republicans, who hold overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate, and moved quickly through the process, but not as quickly as a similar bill that passed last year in the face of heavy opposition from many of the state’s teachers, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.
“This bill is going to improve our system to the benefit of our students,” Scott told reporters after the vote. “We will make sure the best teachers stick around, that we retain them, we train them, and we’ll find the money to make sure they are paid fairly.”
Republicans in the House of Representatives spent much of their time in debate Wednesday responding to criticism from Democrats. Supporters of the bill said it should be welcomed by teachers because it rewards good work.
“Ineffective teachers need to be on guard, effective teachers have nothing to worry about,” said Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville.
This year’s attempt at establishing a teacher merit pay system removed some of the parts of last year’s bill that opponents liked least, such as yanking an educator’s teaching certificate if they receive too many low evaluations. It also exempts special education teachers from having their pay tied to test scores.
“We have listened and we have learned and we have made this a better product,” said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
The bill was still opposed by the state’s teachers union, though, and by many rank and file teachers.
Under this year’s measure, current teachers are also exempted from the new salary requirements and elimination of tenure. New teachers hired after July 2011 are put under one-year contracts and after July 2014, new teachers will be paid under the new merit pay system.
For new teachers, school districts would be required to set up an evaluation system that uses test scores for 50 percent of a teacher’s ranking and a “value-added” formula for the rest.
While Republicans portrayed teachers and school districts as being on board with the bill, the statewide teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, says it harms teachers and should be vetoed.
“This bill reduces a school district’s flexibility and authority over teacher evaluations, pay schedules and working conditions,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association. “It’s not good for students, it’s not good for teachers and it’s not grounded in sound research.”
Democrats said the bill doesn’t include any funding for merit pay increases.
During a time when school districts are facing big budget cuts, Democrats said it is unlikely districts could afford to implement the plan.
“They talk about giving better pay to teachers, but there is no money in the bill,” said House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West. “Show me the money. Where is it?”
The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said districts are not forced to actually pay for merit increases, just to establish a new pay plan and give raises when the money is available.
Money from the $700 million federal Race to the Top grant will be used to develop new tests.
Some critics of teacher merit pay suggested it is a thinly disguised attack on unions. Many teachers belong to their local unions, which collectively bargain on their behalf on salary, benefits and contract terms.
By establishing a set formula for teacher pay raises, Democrats said a union’s ability to collectively bargain on salaries is diminished. Historically, labor unions have been closely aligned with Democrats and reliable contributors to their campaigns.
“It’s nothing more than an attack on public school teachers. It attacks them maybe because they are the easy target or belong to unions,” said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D- St. Petersburg.
Democrats also said they felt shut out of negotiations on the bill. “Every idea we brought forward since this bill was drafted has been rejected,” said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach.
Both Republicans and Democrats claim to have the support of teachers.
“This is a pro-teacher bill,” Rep. Rich Corcoran, R-New Port Richey. “More teachers have said to us they want to be measured; they want to be recognized for excellence.”
One teacher disputes that. Peggy Brookins, a math teacher at Forest High School in Marion County, said she has traveled to the Capitol to oppose the bill. “We are going to test these kids to death,” Brookins said. She was troubled that the formula for how a teacher would be paid was not spelled out.
Brookins said after 33 years of teaching, she makes $52,000 a year.
“I don’t know that there is a teacher in this state who wouldn’t want a better system,” Brookins said. “It’s great to measure student performance, but it has to be done over time.”
The last time the Florida Legislature passed education reforms on this scale was the passage of school vouchers in 1999 under former Gov. Jeb Bush. Those reforms established several programs that allowed students to receive scholarships to attend private schools.
One program, the Opportunity Scholarship, which was supported with taxpayer dollars, was shut down after the Florida Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional.
Republicans ended the day Wednesday with a hint for what is to come:
“The community college presidents have suggested we look at tenure at the community college level too, so that may or may not make it here,” said House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. “You can’t do everything in one session, but it’s an idea that has merit and it may come up.”
–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida